When I first started exfoliating, I’d use a scrub.
Not that I had much choice in the matter. Scrubs were all I could find in the shops. And they worked ok. I could never get into St Ives Apricot Scrub (way too harsh for my skin), but I loved those with sugar. They usually smell delicious!
But I was never totally happy with them. Even though I tried to be gentle and not massage them on my skin too long, those little particles of sugar (or apricot, walnut, whatever) often left my skin raw and irritated.
I thought that was normal.
Then, someone recommended I try glycolic acid. I don’t remember who that angel was, but I remember what happened.
Bells rang. The clouds parted. Angels began to sing.
My skin looked awesome. Softer. Smoother. Radiant. I got all the benefits of exfoliation without the side effects. About time too, if you ask me!
Since that day, I’ve been raving about chemical exfoliants to everyone who would listen. Today, I’ll be raving about them to you. I hope that, by the time I’m done, you’ll do the switch too. I promise, once you do, you’ll never go back again.
- What The Heck Are Chemical Exfoliants?
- 1. Chemical Exfoliants Are Gentler On The Skin
- 2. Chemical Exfoliants Are More Precise
- 3. Chemical Exfoliants Are Multi-Taskers
- 4. Chemical Exfoliants Are Better For Sensitive And Acne-Prone Skin
- What Are The Best Chemical Exfoliants?
- The Bottom Line
What The Heck Are Chemical Exfoliants?
I know, just the word chemical is enough to throw you in a panic. But, there’s nothing dangerous about them.
Chemical exfoliants simply work by dissolving the “glue” that holds skin cells together. Once that’s gone, they simply slough off and away.
There are lots of different chemical exfoliants, but the main three types that pop up again and again in skincare products are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. I’ll tell you all about them later.
Related: What’s The Difference Between Chemical And Physical Exfoliants?
So, why are they better than scrubs? Several reasons:
The Ordinary makes some of the best chemical exfoliants – and they’re so affordable, too! But which one is right for you? Subscribe to the newsletter below to download The Ordinary Products Guide (it’ll help you choose the right Vitamin C and retinol products from The Ordinary, too:
1. Chemical Exfoliants Are Gentler On The Skin
You’d think that a chemical would be way harsher than sugar or walnuts (which, by the way, are made up of chemicals too), wouldn’t you?
It’s actually the other way around. Walnut shells, apricot kernels and other small particles used to manually exfoliate skin often have rough, jagged, and uneven edges that tear and scratch the skin, leaving it red and irritated.
Even gentler particles, like sugar, can seriously irritate skin if you scrub too hard or too long. And let’s face it, we often do. Isn’t it satisfying to see all that gunk come off?
Chemical exfoliants can be irritating too. Usually, that happens when you use a concentration that’s too high for you. And there’s no need for that. Even 2% or 5% concentrations work well so there’s no need to start or go high.
With a scrub, you risk irritating your skin every time you use it. But when you pick the right concentration of your fave chemical exfoliant, you can use it safely – it’ll bother your skin only if you use it too often (I don’t care what brands say, you can’t exfoliate daily).
Related: Is The Clarisonic (Yes, That’s A Physical Exfoliant!) Good Or Bad For Skin?
2. Chemical Exfoliants Are More Precise
It’s so difficult to exfoliate skin evenly with a scrub. Exfoliation depends on you and how long you rub the scrub on your skin. And we don’t exactly time how many seconds we spend on our cheeks, forehead, etc, right?
Too often, we spend more time on the right cheek than the left cheek for example, so that one becomes softer and glowier (or redder and more irritated) than the other.
That’s not to say you can’t get good result from a scrub. You just have to be more careful with them.
How well a chemical exfoliant works, instead, depends on the strength of the exfoliating acid it uses. So, if you apply 5% glycolic acid all over your skin, it’ll exfoliate all of its parts in the same way. You won’t get more exfoliation here and less there.
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It
3. Chemical Exfoliants Are Multi-Taskers
This is the real reason why I switched and urge you to do the same.
Scrubs are one trick ponies. Even when they exfoliate skin well, that’s all they do.
But chemical exfoliants? They’re awesome multi-taskers:
- Glycolic acid: a multi-tasker that exfoliates, hydrates and boosts collagen production. It’s just perfect for dry and sun damaged skin.
- Lactic acid: one of the gentlest exfoliants out there, it also hydrates skin. If yours is sensitive, this is the one to get.
- Salicylic acid: a double duty exfoliant that removes dead cells both on the surface of the skin and inside the pores. There’s nothing better for oily and acne-prone skin. Bye bye pimples!
Whatever your skin type is, there’s a chemical exfoliant that exfoliates it and tackles its woes at the same time. Now, find me a scrub that can do that. Can’t find even a tiny little one, can you?
Related: What’s The Best Chemical Exfoliant For Your Skin Type
4. Chemical Exfoliants Are Better For Sensitive And Acne-Prone Skin
Physical exfoliants are so not a good idea if you suffer from acne. All that rubbing just irritates your skin, which is already inflamed. It’s a recipe for disaster. Switch to salicylic acid. Your skin will thank you!
Rubbing can also irritate sensitive skin. The only kind of physical exfoliation it can tolerate is a washcloth. But why not try lactic acid instead? You may be surprised by how gentle it is.
Related: 3 Safe Ways To Exfoliate Sensitive Skin
What Are The Best Chemical Exfoliants?
That depends on your skin type:
Best For Dry And Sun-Damaged Skin: Glycolic Acid
A glycolic acid exfoliant to target all the signs of aging, such as wrinkles and dark spots. It helps fade hyperpigmentation away, smoothen out texture and hydrate skin:
- Alpha Skincare Enhanced Renewal Cream ($16.99): available at Ulta
- Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment With 5% AHA ($33.00): available at Dermstore, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
- The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80): available at Adore Beauty, Beauty Bay and Cult Beauty
Best For Oily And Acne-Prone Skin: Salicylic Acid
Unlike other chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid is oil-soluble. This means it can get inside the pores, unclogging them from within. It removes blackheads, whiteheads and pimples. Plus, it has anti-inflammatory properties that soothe redness.
- Paula’s Choice Calm Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion ($27.00): available at Feel Unique and Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): available at Dermstore, Look Fantastic and Paula’s Choice
- The Inkey List BHA (£9.99): Available at Cult Beauty, Feel Unique, Look Fantastic, and Sephora
Best For Sensitive Skin: Lactic Acid
Lactic acid is the gentlest chemical exfoliant, so it’s perfect for sensitive skin. Just don’t use it more than once a week.
- Sunday Riley Good Genes (US Version) ($105.00): available at Anthropologie and Sephora
- The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% (£5.50): available at Adore Beauty, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique
Related: How To Choose The Best Exfoliator For Your Skin Type
The Bottom Line
Chemical exfoliants are gentler and more effective than scrubs and go the extra mile too. They exfoliate, hydrate, prevent wrinkles and even soothe irritations! What more could you ask for? Give them a go, you’ll never go back to scrubs again!
Do you prefer chemical exfoliants too? Share your thoughts in the comments below.